Hemlock Society

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The Hemlock Society USA was a national right-to-die organization founded in Santa Monica, California by Derek Humphry in 1980. Its primary missions included providing information to dying persons and supporting legislation permitting physician-assisted suicide. In 1992, following the publication of his book Final Exit, Derek Humphry left the leadership of Hemlock Society USA. In 2003 the national organization renamed itself, and a year later merged with another group into a newly formed national organization called Compassion & Choices. A number of unaffiliated local organizations continue to operate under variants of the Hemlock Society name. A film of the same name has also been made.[1]

Current Hemlock Societies and related organizations[edit]

In the USA (2009) three independent Hemlock Society groups are operating:

All are former chapters of the Hemlock Society USA which ceased to exist after a controversial name change to End Of Life Choices on June 13, 2003, and then shortly thereafter, a merger with Compassion in Dying and consolidating on the name Compassion and Choices.[citation needed]

Hemlock mission[edit]

The original Hemlock was founded in 1980 by Derek Humphry in his garage in Santa Monica, California, when he received a huge response to his memoir Jean's Way, his account of helping his reportedly terminally ill wife take her own life in 1975.[citation needed]

Hemlock's mission was to both: (a) provide information to dying persons who were currently considering hastening their ends; (b) to pass legislation permitting physician-assisted suicide with accompanying guidelines to prevent abuse. Hemlock was the first such organization in America; previous groups had campaigned only for the greater use of the Living Will. The name "Hemlock" was selected in the light of the suicide of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates who had to choose between sentences of death or unlawful escape into exile; after debate with his colleagues, and unable to bear the indignity of escape from the ruling law of his homeland,[2] he, at the government's order, imbibed a drink laced with the hemlock plant.[3] It was Socrates's careful consideration of his choices that inspired the American organization.[citation needed]


Hemlock was a founding charter member of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies when the international organization initiated in 1980 in Oxford, England, by Sidney D. Rosoff and Derek Humphry. Hemlock's national membership grew to 40,000 with eighty chapters. In 1988, Hemlock hosted in San Francisco the 7th biennial conference of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies.[citation needed]

In 1998, the Hemlock Society formed a side group called 'Caring Friends' which provided its members with support and guidance, nationwide, if they were terminally ill and asking for help to die. Its principal founders were Dr. Richard MacDonald, Hemlock's medical director, Faye Girsh, executive director, Wye Hale-Rowe and Lois Schafer, staff members. Strict guidelines were put in place to protect Caring Friends from legal problems, and it had none.

In 2000, Hemlock staged in Boston the 10th international conference of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies, which was attended by 483 people and had 66 speakers.[4]

Hemlock backed legislative efforts in California, Washington, Michigan, and Maine without success until the Oregon Death with Dignity Act was passed in 1994. Hemlock infused (under IRS rules) a total of $992,210 on six campaigns.[citation needed]

Final Exit and Hemlock Society[edit]

In 1991, Humphry wrote the book Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying. At first, commercial publishers refused to publish Final Exit so Hemlock self-published it in hardback. Within months it made it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It was one of the few self-published books ever to hit the bestseller list, earning Hemlock over one million dollars net. In 1992 Random House took over publishing the paperback.[5] In 1992, Humphry left the leadership of Hemlock Society USA and later formed Euthanasia Research & Guidance Organization ERGO Assisted suicide#Euthanasia Research & Guidance Organization (ERGO)ERGO.

The Gladd Group[edit]

Another Hemlock offshoot is The Gladd Group, founded in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa, California by Sharlotte Hydorn (born 1919 or 1920), who met Humphry after the death of her husband, and joined the Hemlock Society.[when?] In May 2011, the FBI raided Mrs. Hydorn's home and shut GLADD down. She was making and selling helium hood kits worldwide. Subsequently, no criminal charges were filed and Mrs. Hydorn agreed to stop manufacture and plead guilty to failing to make income tax returns. Mrs Hydorn died in December 2013, aged 93.

Hemlock Society leaders and members form Final Exit Network[edit]

After Hemlock ceased to exist in 2004, some members of Hemlock's leadership formed the Final Exit Network to continue its mission. Hemlock chapters in Florida, Illinois and the San Diego, California area continue their mission of helping people understand what is involved in accelerating one's end, and pushing for legislation.[citation needed] These chapters cooperate with – but are not an official part of – the national Final Exit Network which provides informational guidance.[citation needed]

Past leaders of the Hemlock Society[edit]

Hemlock Society USA Presidents:

Executive Directors:



See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hemlock society (film)
  2. ^ Plato, Crito, section 50-54, cited in Norman Melchert, The Great Conversation, 4th Edition, McGraw Hill, 2002, p.107
  3. ^ Plato, Phaedo (Death Scene), section 117c, cited in Norman Melchert, The Great Conversation, 4th Edition, McGraw Hill, 2002, p. 115
  4. ^ Timelines (Hemlock Society newsletter), Fall 2000, #85
  5. ^ Derek Humphry, Good Life, Good Death - Memoir, pg. 269, Norris Lane Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-9768283-3-4
  6. ^ Richard N Cote, In Search of Gentle Death, Corinthian Books, 2008, Page 6, ISBN 978-1-929175-36-9
  7. ^ Constance E. Putnam, Hospice or Hemlock? Searching for Heroic Compassion, Praeger, 2002, pg. 51; ISBN 0-89789-921-0
  8. ^ Sidney Wanzer MD and Joseph Glenmullen MD, To Die Well. Your Right to Comfort, Calm and Choices in the Last Days of Your Life, Merloyd Lawrence, 2007, pg. 85; ISBN 0-7382-1083-8
  9. ^ Donald Cox, Hemlock's Cup: The Struggle for Death with Dignity, Prometheus Books, 1993, pg. 178; ISBN 0-87975-808-2
  10. ^ Henry R. Glick, The Right to Die: Policy Innovation and Its Consequences, Columbia University Press, 1992, pg. 103; ISBN 0-231-07638-X
  11. ^ Peter G. Filene, In The Arms of Others: A Cultural History of the Right-to-Die in America, Ivan R. Dee, 1998, pg. 196; ISBN 1-56663-188-2

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